One of the best ways to make sure your project team maximizes efficiency and ships on time is to figure out the project “blocks.” In other words, answer the question “What’s blocking you?”

You might recognize this question from the Personal Alignment pattern and protocol. Figuring out what’s blocking you as an individual is essential to getting what you want, your personal alignment. Figuring out what’s blocking your team is essential to shipping great products on time.

When I ask a team “What’s the biggest block?” I’m talking about the most interesting block, the most daunting one. Another way I ask that question is “What is the biggest block to shipping this product tomorrow? Why can’t that be done?”

The Critical Path
There is a project management term called the Critical Path. This means that if you were to map out all the tasks that need to get done to ship the product, noting all dependencies, the longest chain of tasks is the critical path. It is the path of most resistance. It is why the ship date is as far out as it is.

When you ask yourself “What’s the biggest block?” you are usually going to come up with some task or chain of tasks, the critical path. However, when I ask about blocks, I’m not just referring to tasks. Sometimes the biggest block is something else, such as low morale, team exhaustion, “waiting” for a reorg, distraction with a budgeting task, missing a key team member, fighting between team members, etc. When doing this exercise, do not limit yourself to tasks. Everything is important. It is important to be truthful with yourself and with each other. What is really the biggest block?

(As an aside, it’s interesting that if the biggest block turns out to be something psychological like waiting for a reorg, the prescription for success is almost always to go back to the tasks. In other words, even though the biggest block isn’t a task, the solution to the block is getting the team’s attention back on the critical path tasks.)

In a Meeting
Asking “What’s the biggest block?” or getting alignment around that question is almost always a great way to run a project meeting. When running the Meet Protocol(see Files section in TheCoreProtocols yahoogroup), if you don’t have something specific you want, just default to “I want us to align around what the biggest block is.” or “I want to understand what the biggest block is.”

Typically, the biggest block moves around. It changes over time. In other words, it is useful to ask yourself this question every day. It is useful to ask your team this question at least once a week.

Investigate Your Team
Everything you need is on your team. It is important that you don’t decide independently what the biggest blocks are without team alignment. It is almost a sure thing that your fellow team member holds some crucial piece of information about the biggest block that you weren’t even aware of. What’s scary is that he maybe isn’t even aware of it. The way to get that information out in the open where you can do something about it is to investigate your teammates.

Investigatory Questions:
What do you think is the biggest block?
What help could you/we ask for to get that done?
How can we do that faster?
What’s keeping us from shipping this next week?
Do you think that is one of the biggest blocks or the biggest block for the project?
Joe, do you agree with that?
Sue, what do you think?
So, I’m hearing that the biggest block is receiving the new piece of equipment from Acme Corp. Is that right?
Can we drop this feature for this version?
How can we not do this task?
Have we considered other options for solving this problem?
Have we asked for help from the best sources of help possible?

Block Shame
Once in a while I’ll run into a team that doesn’t want to discuss the biggest block because one or more team members believe it is shameful to discuss. For instance, they might feel if you say one task is a block then you are blaming or shaming the people associated with that task. At that point, it is important to back up and define what you mean by the terms “critical path” or “block.” Get alignment on your definitions and then proceed. You can diagnose block shame by the symptoms of defensiveness and unwillingness to answer the investigatory questions.

Those symptoms would also be symptoms of an unaligned team. If you are working with a team that is not “booted” and does not share the Core Commitments(see http://www.mccarthy-tech.com/thecore1_5.pdf), getting through this discussion might be a lot more difficult because of a possible lack of trust, respect or shared vision.

An Obstacle Course
Pretend that your project completion is an obstacle course and you want to get the biggest obstacles over with in the beginning. Here are some strategies for being on time or early:

*You want to know what all the obstacles are as soon as possible.

*You want to deal with the biggest, hardest obstacles first.

*You want to complete every obstacle as soon as possible, rather than “on schedule.”

*If you can go around an obstacle or skip it, do that.

*Your team has to stay on the same course. You don’t want part of the team on a different course.

*Getting your team aligned about the blocks and how to deal with them using the entire team IQ is much more efficient than “working hard” or pounding away at the problem. Look for the big ideas.

*Make sure team members aren’t going over obstacles that don’t exist.

*What’s the biggest obstacle? Get that done. What’s the next biggest? Get that done. Repeat.